Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy Review

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Publisher: Midway
Developer: Midway

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Paranormal mental powers are a reality. Spurred on by the discovery of ancient artifacts, older than mankind itself, the world's nations began to investigate using psi-operatives to supplement conventional espionage. World wars have been fought over these ancient artifacts. Humanity landed on the moon to acquire more of them. Hidden from the public eye, psi-operatives were key to operations on both sides of the Cold War. The US established Mindgate as a training and operation center for psi-operatives, but when the Cold War ended, funding dried up. When the General in charge of Mindgate was caught overstepping his authority, he fled rather than face a war crimes tribunal.

Mindgate was disbanded by the government, which underplayed the power and potential of its psi-operative soldiers rather than face public fears. At the same time, the General and many of Mindgate's most powerful operatives formed the Movement. The Movement dedicated itself to establishing a new order in which psi-capable humans ruled over "mundane" humans lacking powers such as Telekinesis. The Movement is currently building its ranks by transforming and reconditioning mundanes into completely devoted and unstoppable Meat Puppet soldiers. Nick Scryer, a former Mindgate operative, has been given radical plastic surgery and a memory wipe to obscure his identity. After being captured along with a squad of soldiers set to be converted into Meat Puppets, Scryer is activated and set on the path that must ultimately lead to the demise of the Movement.

Kyle Ackerman

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (Psi-Ops) is for hardcore gamers something like what The Sims is for casual gamers. Sure, there's a game here. It's even a really good game. But fundamentally, ragdoll physics together with psychic powers turn Psi-Ops into a kind of sandbox where, instead of rearranging furniture and trapping Sim people in the pool, you can fling hapless guards through the air to see how they bounce off walls, and practice flaming corpse bowling. It may sound anti-social, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Telekinesis and Good Physics Would Be Enough, But There's More

Psi-Ops uses the Havok 2 physics engine as the cornerstone of its world, which it then builds up with six Psi-powers. Even with just the ability to move objects (telekinesis) and the ability to set objects aflame (pyrokinesis), the world becomes your plaything. Never have I been so excited to find a game world filled with stacks of crates and exploding barrels as in Psi-Ops. A stack of crates isn't your signal to dread another jumping puzzle. Instead, it means you can set a crate on fire and then hurl the smoldering box into a cluster of Meat Puppet guards to knock them down and set them aflame. A large open space between two towers in Hong Kong means that you hop onto a box and use your telekinesis to surf the box above 99 floors of void. You can even grab guards with your telekinesis, bludgeon other guards with the flailing body and then hurl your toy into the abyss. And that's just two of the powers at your (and Nick Scryer's) disposal.

Many of the levels are ultimately simple puzzles, but the robust physics and clever powers mean there are usually several ways to get through an area (and many more ways to have a good old psi-time). Equally important, the controls are really well designed, making you feel fully in control of your powers, and with equal access to them at all times. Telekinesis and pyrokinesis are supplemented by mind control powers, mind drain powers, remote viewing talents and aura view powers. If you prefer a more subtle approach, many of these powers allow you to play a stealthy game and avoid getting your hands dirty. In Splinter Cell, Sam Fischer has a flexible optic cable to look under doors. Using remote viewing, Nick Scryer can leave his body and send a projection to go right through doors, wander around and observe guards as they go about their patrols. Fischer must be envious. Using his aura view abilities, Nick can tell if guards are haplessly unaware, suspicious or have spotted him. That same power can see the psychic residues of footsteps or even writing on erasable boards. For the ultimate in stealth kills, Nick can use mind control to take over a Meat Puppet and have him attack his compatriots. (It's also useful for activating remote switches.)

Grenades Are A Gift Best Returned

What really makes Psi-Ops so appealing is that the world is solid and operates within its own, consistent set of rules. That means that you can use your powers, firearms and stealth skills in just about any conceivable combination. Feel like a little target practice? Use telekinesis to hurl clay pots into the air and then shoot them with an assault rifle before they land. Annoyed that Meat Puppets keep hurling grenades at you? Grab them in the air with telekinesis and hurl them back before they explode. Or possess the sniper on a nearby rooftop and take out the grenadier while your body crouches behind a shipping container. There's an incredible incentive to replay areas or even the entire game, just to see if that latest idea you had could really work.

Despite relying on plot crutches like amnesia, conspiracy and stereotyped characters, the story is surprisingly compelling, and the extensive cut-scenes are actually good. For every Marlena Kessler (the temperamental East German mistress of pyrokinesis) there is a Nicolas Wrightson (who has been traveling out of his body so long that it is a withered husk, kept alive by tubes and wires). And there are plenty of amusing touches – throughout the game you flash back to training sequences, representing different times when Nick received instruction in the use of his power. Each time the training is conducted by Nick's old partner Edgar Barrett. And each time, Barrett has a different and equally ridiculous hairdo. In turn, you face each of the Movement's most powerful talents, making for fascinating levels, such as Wei Lu's illusory office maze. It's just befuddling enough to seem confusing, while well designed enough to herd you through with little difficulty. The game is punctuated by boss battles with each of these lieutenants in the General's Movement. The boss battles are pleasantly creative. Each has a fairly obvious gimmick and together they are a nice break from the constant onslaught of dim Meat Puppets, without being frustratingly difficult.

Psi-Bowling Is Here!

It's also worth unlocking many of the bonus missions just for the fun of seeing the development team show off the physics. In one mission, you engage in super-sized bowling, using the huge marble spheres from the Hong Kong level to knock down man-sized pins. In others, you snipe distant explosive barrels to start a chain-reaction that will free you from a cage, or just face an onslaught of zombies. The game looks good enough, and will meet your expectations for a gritty action game on the PlayStation 2. What is impressive are the visual effects to represent various powers. The lightening-like effect as you drain mental energy from a helpless technician until his head explodes from the strain, or the fuzzy, colorful and wavering-vision of the aura-view mode are well conceived and executed.

Fundamentally, the easiest criticism to levy against Psi-Ops is its length. On Normal Difficulty Mode, the game is likely to take seven to ten hours to finish, and anything above the first five to six is from repeating sequences and restarting at a past checkpoint. In the game's defense, with so much player flexibility, it can be desperately difficult to make levels that creative players can't break. And no matter what absurd scheme I conceived, the engine and levels handled it with aplomb. Between the bonus missions (which are mini-games of a sort) and the extensive replayability (across four difficulty levels), it's easy to forgive the game's shortness.

Psi-Ops can be a gruesome toy at times (and one that earned its M-rating), but it is delightful, and much more open-ended than its linear plot might suggest. With your many powers, and an environment full of objects that can be manipulated with Scryer's mind, there is so much to do in Psi-Ops that it's hard to put down.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 27, 2004 1:31 PM.

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